When the tennis world's elite started early round play last week at the U.S. Open, Noah Rubin was nine miles away, practicing at a court on Randalls Island.
And when the 16-year-old from Rockville Centre arrives tomorrow for his first round in the boys' juniors here as the 14th seed, it will be in an aged Jeep driven by his dad, not one of the chauffeured Mercedes-Benz sedans the tournament supplies main draw players.
But Rubin is looking to upgrade.
After his first year of international tournament play he's the world's 16th-ranked junior, a distinction he earned by beating boys as much as two years older.
In June, he advanced to the quarterfinals of the French Open boys event; in July, he won his first professional match; in August, he made the semifinals of the Boys 18 national championships, taking out the top seed in straight sets before losing to the eventual winner.
Jose Higueras, director of coaching for the United States Tennis Association, who has worked with players including Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, first saw Rubin two years ago at the USTA's Boca Raton, Fla., training center.
What stuck out for Higueras had less to do with technique and more to do with "competitiveness," a word he did not use lightly.
"It means you find ways to win matches," he said. "Some days you win and very prettily, some days not. How much are you willing to explore, to give yourself a chance to win the match? With Noah, he knows what he wants to do, and he is not afraid."
Rubin knows the stakes, though. He left John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore-Merrick at the start of his sophomore year to train and tour full time, squeezing a few hours of online study a day in between practice, court sprints and agility work.
On the road about six months out of the year, he doesn't date, or work a part-time job, or play other sports, and he's not likely to attend college anytime soon.
He knows that his dad, Eric Rubin, a former college player and commercial banker who was briefly unemployed last year after a layoff, has spent much of his savings on coaching and travel expenses that can top $80,000 a year, although the USTA and John McEnroe Tennis Academy, where he trains, have helped with grants in recent years, and Head, adidas and Solinco provide his clothing and equipment.
"I really hope it works out," he said at practice the other day. "It's going to be tough if it doesn't."
Playing in Futures tournaments this summer, tennis' equivalent of AA ball, Rubin said, gave him a sense of what that might mean. "I saw people coming up like me, and college players, and guys in their 30s, people who've been playing the circuit 10 years," he said. "They just couldn't quite get there."
Anyone fortunate enough to be identified as a top American prospect must also reckon with the specter of Donald Young, a former junior world No. 1 who reached a professional high of No. 38 earlier this year but has largely disappointed those who saw in him the future of the sport.
Young, said John McEnroe this week, "was someone who had incredible potential." Compared to Rubin, Young "has a more natural feel for the ball, and incredible hands."
But "Noah seems to be someone who gets the work ethic better than Donald did. Donald, unfortunately, too often relied on natural ability; Noah gets that you need both."
Rubin had started this practice exchanging ground strokes with a hitting partner. His coaches -- his dad and Lawrence Kleger -- looked on.
They said little to him as he moved on to hit serves, first spinning them in one after another, then slowing his cadence, picking his spots and upping the pace.
He had such a loose, rangy motion that it did not seem like work at all; not until you heard the sound, which was as loud and as sharp as a detonation, and soon drew a crowd of the curious to watch.